Pacific Presences is a five year European Research Council funded project that investigates the art and history of the Pacific, and Europe’s engagement with Oceania, through the rich ethnographic collections found in many European museums. Whilst a few works have become icons of Oceanic art, extensive collections, formed over the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, remain largely unstudied. Focusing on collections from the Pacific, which are now in museums in Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom, this project will use inter-disciplinary methods to explore a broad range of artworks from the region. Considering the constitutive role of artefacts in Pacific societies whilst addressing the complexity of their cross-cultural histories, the project aims to confront and explore the colonial lives of the collections and consider their significance and salience to twenty-first century communities and audiences, in both the Pacific and Europe.

More broadly the project considers questions relating to museum policy and practice as well as the role and relevance of these collections in Europe and the Pacific today. The research group will investigate Oceanic collections across a range of European museums in unprecedented depth. Researchers will work with a network of collaborators, including elders and community members in the Pacific Islands, and contemporary artists, who will provide a range of expert, customary and experimental perspectives upon art works and genres, and reflect upon a range of questions raised by collection histories and museum environments.
The project will:
• Re-think theory behind the constitution of collections: viewing them not simply as ‘samples’ of local material cultures but rather as complex, relational assemblages;
• Use comparative methods to understand both the arts of Oceania and the making of European collections, examining the profiles of collections as a means of exploring how and why Russian, German, Dutch, French and British exploratory, colonial and scientific enterprises resulted in the making of distinctive collections and museums;
• Propose new, powerfully historicised approaches to the display and presentation of Oceanic art, and world cultures generally, appropriate to the current generation of European museums in the twenty-first century.

Areas currently researched by the project include: New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Palau, New Zealand, Marquesas and Cook Islands.

The research by this project is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° [324146]11.